Life is shorter than the squeal of a sparrow.
Like a dog, regardless, sailing
on an ice floe down the river in spring?
So opens the title poem of Tango with Cows, a 1914 book by Vasily Kamensky, with accompanying drawings by David and Vladimir Burliuk. All three artists were members of the group Hylaea, whose 1912 manifesto, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” is often cited as formally starting the Russian Futurist movement. Unlike the Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism,” which proposed not only a new relationship to art but to all of life as well, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” was more specifically concerned with upending the literary status quo. As one line reads: “All those Maxim Gorkys, Kuprins, Bloks, Sologubs, Remizovs … need only a dacha on the river. Such is the reward fate gives tailors. From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!”
Kamensky and the brothers Burliuk are associated with the Cubo-Futurist movement, which combined the concerns of French Cubism and Italian Futurism. This melding of two distinct avant-garde movements is clearly demonstrated in Tango with Cows. The book was printed in a single edition of 300, all on wallpaper — a similar use of proletarian material as can be seen in early Cubist collages. And the Burliuks’ illustrations often mimic Cubist forms. The texts, meanwhile, are concrete poetry, in which the physical form of the poem becomes part of its reading and meaning. As in Futurist poetry, Kamensky’s words seem to explode and dance all over the page, and he uses onomatopoeia to invoke his subjects, a number of which are related to technology: “Telephone” evokes the sounds of the instrument buzzing.
The book, in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Getty — which has made its version available digitally — demonstrates the sincerity and playfulness with which much of pre-WWI Europe approached modernity. The wars, the atom bomb, and the terror of Stalin would go on to wipe out these naively optimistic hopes for technology, making Tango with Cows truly an object from another era.